Emotionally intelligent features of the Bechdel Test

Famous Allison Bechdel comic strip reference the test.

Wow, what a couple of weeks for the Bechdel Test. I heard an interview last week on the radio with a Swedish Film officionado and I thought that was the end of it. But it’s not – this story is still going. The story is that some movie theatres in Sweden have adopted a new movie rating system, based on the test popularized by Alison Bechdel.

In case you don’t know, the Bechdel Test is a simple test of gender, er, parity representation in movies. Here’s how you apply the test to a movie you’ve watched:

1.0 Does the movie have two women? Good.
2.0 Do they talk to each other? Almost there.
3.0 Do they talk about something other than a man? You’re done!

An A rating award for movies that pass the Bechdel Test

If the answer to these three questions is yes, then congratulations! The movie you watched passed the Bechdel Test.

I can’t say enough good things about this test. It’s so fun! And it’s fun for the whole family. I’ve been with groups who cheer the moment a movie passes the test. One of the great virtues of this test is that it’s simple. And it’s mostly easy to see whether a movie passes or not. And it’s often surprising to the uninitiated just how many movies fail.

Disagreement about how to apply the rules has led to some variations like:

1.1 (optional) Are the two women named? (I think this is part of the film test)
2.1 (optional) Do the women talk for over 60 seconds?

The Bechdel test is also called the Bechdel-Wallace test because, although Bechdel’s hit comics popularized the test, Bechdel claimed that her friend Wallace was the originator. Well, actually, Bechdel suggests that its roots can also be found in Virginia Woolf (Chapter 5 of A Room of One’s Own, “Chloe liked Olivia”) so I suppose we could also call it the Woolf-Wallace-Bechdel Test. :)

And I’m so happy that this test has hit a really mainstream news cycle the last couple of weeks. And for this we can also thank those Swedish film lovers. Here’s a good article in Forbes reviewing the decision to create the Bechdel Rating.

It’s not simply because I love this test that I’m writing about it. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the features of this test that are emotionally intelligent.

EI features of the Bechdel Test

Okay, inanimate objects and algorithms can’t really be emotionally intelligent, or even just intelligent. But it’s helpful, I think, to refer to the features that reflect the dimensions of emotional intelligence.

Take, for example, reality testing. One’s ability to accept realities for what they are, is a really important dimension of emotional intelligence that is tested for by the EQ-i 2.0 and EQ 360. And the Bechdel Test is a brilliant tool to help us see gender representations, or the lack thereof, in films. Everyone I’ve ever talked to, even if they already had an analysis of gender and gender representation, has said that the Bechdel Test has helped them to see more fully how movies portray men and women.

“The Woolf-Wallace-Bechdel test makes us smarter.”

The reason is that we can’t notice everything all the time. I was so impressed with the Swedish movie critic who, when asked, said she wasn’t smart enough to see the problem, until they learned how to apply this simple test. It’s true. I also wasn’t smart enough. The test makes us smarter. It’s makes us better at seeing the reality of gender representations. And it helps us to understand the way gender works in other parts of our lives too. And the test is not just an aid to reality testing.

I think, because this test can help us to understand the pervasiveness and subtlety of the challenges that women face, it can also be an aid to our empathy. And because the test challenges individuals to see film differently, and because the art of film is being shaped by this phenomenon, the test is also an aid to social responsibility.

Last word

Last word to Alyson Bechdel:

“…And I’m glad mainstream culture is starting to catch up to where lesbian-feminism was 30 years ago. But I just can’t seem to rise to the occasion of talking about this fundamental principle over and over again, as if it’s somehow new, or open to debate. Fortunately, a younger generation of women is taking up the tiresome chore…”

I just want to be intellectually rigorous!

Two art pieces in black and white are displayed onto sand and light sage coloured backgrounds and they look complementary.

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